In honor of Earth Day 2018, we caught up with the author of "The Nature Fix" to talk about how the outdoors can improve our mental health and make us better people.
Earth Day takes places on Sunday, April 22nd, and this year we wanted to pay homage to the benefits of nature beyond the physical, and rather talk about the mental and emotional effects of being outside. Whether simply listening to birds, gazing at stars, standing in a forest, or climbing a mountain, nature has the supreme ability to make us better people. Prize-winning author, journalist, and contributing editor of Outside Magazine, Florence Williams investigates the restorative power of nature in her book, The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative. We got to talk with her about her biggest discoveries in writing this book and why we must continue to protect and care for our natural world before its too late.
In your research for The Nature Fix what was your most startling discovery?
I wasn’t surprised that being in nature improves our moods or sharpens our minds, but I was surprised by the mounting evidence that it actually makes us better people. By that, I mean experiencing beauty and accessing mental restoration makes us more patient with others, makes us behave more altruistically, and makes us feel more connected to each other.
Beyond physical fitness, what does nature do for our mental and emotional health? How do those benefits manifest?
According to Harvard entomologist Ed Wilson and others, humans have a natural affinity for living things and landscapes because our brains and nervous systems evolved in natural habitats. On some level, we just feel comfortable there. In benign, green, ecologically rich places our blood pressure lowers a bit, our stress hormones appear to attenuate, and our mood and cognition improve. We all need time to let our minds wander, to play and to explore. This is especially true of children, whose brains are developing through exploration and sensory stimulation, but it’s good for all of us in our over-scheduled lives. Yet most of us don’t recognize these benefits, and we tend to underestimate how well being in nature makes us feel.
Would you say that nature can instill fearlessness in us?
Not exactly. The natural world can certainly be fearsome! But being outside and relaxing can help us gain perspective and be less anxious. We will always experience fearful or stressful events, but we can respond to those differently depending on our resilience and state of mind. Emotional resilience in both kids and adults can certainly be fostered by spending time in nature. We learn from the natural world that life goes on, that nature regenerates and heals.
From your standpoint, what do we lose if we don’t continue to protect and conserve nature?
We will be at risk of further severing our connection to the natural world, and it will be bad both for us and the planet. We are living in a new age of anxiety heightened by our inexorable tethering to technology. The novelty and delight of being ever-connected, always reachable, always accountable has given way to a realization that we have lost something of our freedom and our souls. We are craving an antidote defined by authenticity, analog grounding and sensory gratification, and nature is an obvious place to look. Many people are starting to recognize that we are on the brink of losing a piece of our long-evolved human connection to the natural world as never before.
THE NATURE FIX: WHY NATURE MAKES US HAPPIER, HEALTHIER, AND MORE CREATIVE by Florence Williams is available at all major bookstores, including Powell’s Books.